Introduction

Introduction

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
0 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740667678
Photographer
William Meppem

This book is for anyone who is interested in discovering more about the culinary influence of the Middle East and how to use these foods and flavours in their own kitchens at home.

Many people have some understanding of cooking from the Arab world, but it is usually based on their experience of limp pita bread and greasy kebabs from a grubby Lebanese takeaway. In more recent years there has also been a fashion for Moroccan food, with every other trendy bistro serving couscous and chermoula. But any deeper interest in Arab-influenced foods seems to have stopped here, which scarcely does them justice. The cuisines of the region we call the Middle East are as refined and complex as many other great cuisines of the world.

My own interest in food and cooking began in the family home in suburban Melbourne. My culinary instincts are rooted in the flavours and traditions of Lebanon, as cooked by my grandmothers and mother. When my classmates were munching on their lunchtime sandwiches of Strasbourg and tomato sauce, I was tucking into a garlic-laden falafel. Using ingredients such as chickpeas, allspice, vine leaves and rosewater has always been as natural to me as breathing.

When I embarked on my cooking career I followed the traditional route for a young Australian apprentice cook. I studied at trade school here in Melbourne while working in the kitchens of several outstanding local restaurants. The formal part of my training over, I then spent a number of years overseas, cooking in France, Italy, Austria and Hong Kong, honing my skills, extending my repertoire, and scarcely giving a thought to childhood dishes like stuffed vine leaves and kibbeh nayeh.

Over the last 18 years or so, since heading up my own kitchen, I have been able to synthesise the various influences of my culinary life and to produce the sort of food that I have always wanted to cook: not traditional Lebanese dishes, but rather food which, for me, captures the essence of the Middle East and expresses it in the best western tradition.

I am all for progress and evolution, in the kitchen as in any other field. Never before has the spread of information and ideas been as easy. As a result, most people know a little about many different cuisines, and are happy to incorporate ideas from Thailand, Mexico, Italy or Morocco in their own cooking.

There are, of course, those purists and traditionalists who abhor this evolution – and when it comes to the arbitrary mish-mashing together of completely incongruous ingredients, I too have been known to shudder. Such a lack of discrimination is, I feel, all about the quest for novelty, with little understanding or respect for the traditions of the cuisines used. But, surely things are no different than they ever were? There have always been fads and fashions in food. Over the centuries, as new ingredients spread to different regions they were quickly adopted and used ad nauseam until they found their own place and level in local culinary traditions. Without this eternal quest for new and different ideas we would still be munching on lentils and cabbage.

While I believe that good cooking is about understanding how to balance flavours and textures and respecting an ingredient’s heritage, I also believe that this understanding does not necessarily have to be instinctual. It comes through experience. With this book I hope to encourage people to learn about and use ingredients which are close to my heart. Some, like rice or apricots are well known; others, like sumac or cardamom, may be less familiar. Most are relatively easy to track down, although a few will require a visit to a specialist Middle Eastern food store or good delicatessen. I have certainly not provided a comprehensive or definitive list of ingredients, but rather a subjective list of my own favourites, used in recipes which I feel best reflect the spirit of Middle Eastern cooking.

This book is not intended for the superchef – Middle Eastern food, is after all, largely just good home cooking. Many traditional dishes, though, are labour-intensive and time-consuming to prepare. They have evolved over hundreds of years, developed by Middle Eastern women whose day and social life revolved around highly labour-intensive cooking techniques. But these days few people have the time or inclination to spend hours stuffing little exquisite morsels.

Indeed, it seems as if the task of providing food every day for family, partner or oneself has become something of a chore. I firmly believe that one’s daily dinner should not be complicated, time-consuming and overworked. In the western world we are blessed with an abundant and staggering array of fresh produce, and this should drive our repertoire. A dish can be transformed by the simplest things – and it is this detail which the following recipes are about. Remember then, that while some of the dishes might sound exotic and mysterious, they are based on traditions which are, after all, everyday fare in another culture.

In the pages that follow then, you will find a range of different dishes. Some, like the pickled pork belly, require a certain amount of planning ahead, even if they are not in themselves difficult and complicated to prepare; others are simple ideas, such as soft-boiled eggs sprinkled with dukkah, or a roast chicken stuffed under the skin with preserved lemon butter. Often it is simply a matter of looking at things from a different angle to make them exciting.

A word about health: my own past has been littered with angioplasty, bypass operations and even a heart transplant. Today I simply have to be conscious of my cholesterol intake, but I am firmly against the sort of food fascism which dictates many people’s eating habits these days. For a healthy constitution, there must be balance. Don’t banish all fats from your diet, but make sure, instead, that you eat ‘healthier’ fats such as olive oil, rather than saturated animal fats. Dairy foods are critical for bone and teeth strength – but make sure you don’t eat a full-fat triple-cream cheese every day. You might opt instead for yoghurt. The desserts, cakes and biscuits in this book are not intended to be eaten every day. In the Middle East, they are rarely eaten, except on special occasions, and for the most part a meal will finish with fresh fruit.

Finally, a word about the construction of this book, and its co-author Lucy: I am a professional cook; she is not. On the other hand, she can write, whereas I (in good chef-like tradition) can barely manage a shopping list. Together, then, we make a great working partnership, as we divide the responsibilities on the basis of our talents and inclinations. The text of the book is, for the most part, written by Lucy, and it is she too, who has been largely responsible for the translation of ingredients from commercial quantities to domestic. The recipes are written by me, but are the results of 40 years of eating, talking and experimenting with families and friends. The influences of my grandmothers, mother, sister-in-law and sister-in-law’s mother, as well as countless other colleagues and mentors over the years, are all visible in this book.

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